Special Report: Inside Iran’s secret project to produce aluminium powder for missiles

Bozorgmehr Sharafedin and Pratima Desai
FILE PHOTO: Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei speaks live on television after casting his ballot in the Iranian presidential election in Tehran

By Bozorgmehr Sharafedin and Pratima Desai

LONDON (Reuters) - At the edge of the desert in North Khorasan province in northeast Iran, near the country’s largest deposit of bauxite, sits an aluminium production complex that the government has publicly hailed as a key part of its efforts to boost output of the metal.

But the site near the city of Jajarm is also home to a secret facility set up by Iran’s elite security force, the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, that has been producing aluminium powder for use in its missile programme, according to a former Iranian government official and documents relating to the facility he shared with Reuters. Aluminium powder, derived from bauxite, is a key ingredient in solid-fuel propellants used to launch missiles.

Iran started producing the powder for military use more than five years ago, according to the former official, who from 2013 until 2018 was head of public relations and also parliamentary affairs envoy in the office of the vice president for executive affairs, which at the time oversaw some economic policies. The ex-official, Amir Moghadam, said he visited the little-known facility twice and that production was continuing when he left Iran in 2018.

Iran’s production of aluminium powder for use in missiles, which hasn’t previously been reported, was developed amid international sanctions designed to block the country’s efforts to acquire advanced weapons technology. The United States and allies view Iran’s missile capabilities as a threat to the region and the world.

Reuters reviewed more than a dozen documents relating to the aluminium powder project and people involved, dating from 2011 to 2018. One is a letter addressed to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei from a Revolutionary Guards commander whose brother has been described by the Iranian state as the father of Iran’s missile programme.

In the letter, Mohammad Tehrani Moghadam described the Jajarm facility as a "project to produce missile fuel from metal powder" and said it played a significant role in "improving the country’s self-sufficiency in production of solid fuel for missiles." The letter is undated but appears to be from 2017, based on references to events.

In response to questions from Reuters, Alireza Miryousefi, spokesman for the Iranian mission to the United Nations in New York, said: “We have no information on these claims and on the authenticity of documents.”

“We should reiterate that Iran has never had any intention to produce any nuclear warheads or missiles," Miryousefi said. Iran has long said its missile programme is solely defensive.

The Revolutionary Guards oversee Iran’s missile programme. Its public relations office didn’t respond to questions when contacted by phone for this article. Mohammad Tehrani Moghadam did not respond to requests for comment. (He is unrelated to Amir Moghadam, the former official who detailed the programme to Reuters.) The offices of Supreme Leader Khamenei and President Hassan Rouhani also did not respond to enquiries.

Amir Moghadam’s disclosures about the aluminium powder programme could intensify scrutiny in Washington of Iran’s missile efforts. The former Iranian official, who now lives in France, says he left Iran in 2018 after being accused of stirring unrest following public comments he made alleging the corruption of some government officials. He said he wanted to expose the programme because he believed Iran's missile ambitions were not in the interests of Iranian people.

The United States has broad sanctions in place, including targeting Iran’s metals sector and ballistic missile programme. Those include restrictions on operations in, and transactions related to, Iran’s aluminium sector. The sanctions also target the Revolutionary Guards and third parties that provide material support to or conduct certain transactions with the Guards. The U.S. Treasury has a primary role in administering sanctions.

Asked whether Reuters’ new findings about the production of aluminium powder for military purposes indicated a sanctions violation, a U.S. Treasury spokesman said: “Treasury takes any reports of potentially sanctionable conduct seriously, and while we do not comment on possible investigations, we are committed to targeting those persons who support the Iranian regime and their malign activities around the world within our authorities.”

The United Nations has placed restrictions on Iran’s activity related to ballistic missile activity capable of delivering nuclear weapons. A spokesman said it wasn’t clear whether the aluminium powder activities revealed by Reuters would breach those restrictions. Jose Luis Diaz, spokesman for the U.N. Department of Political and Peacebuilding Affairs, said “the Security Council has not clarified whether the ability of Iran to produce aluminium powder for use as a missile propellant is inconsistent with the restrictive measures.”


EXPLOSIVE QUALITIES

Producing its own aluminium powder for use in missile propellants would give Iran greater control of the supply chain and quality, said Michael Elleman, Washington, DC-based director of the non-proliferation and nuclear policy programme at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, a security think tank.

According to the documents related to the aluminium powder programme reviewed by Reuters, the Jajarm facility is run by Iran Alumina Company. IAC is a subsidiary of state-owned mines and metal holding company Iranian Mines and Mining Industries Development and Renovation Organisation (IMIDRO). IAC and IMIDRO did not reply to requests for comment.

IAC’s website says the company operates a bauxite mine and an aluminium production facility at a complex located about 10 kilometers to the northeast of Jajarm. Bauxite is processed into alumina, which is used to produce aluminium metal. Aluminium powder is made from the metal.

Aluminium powder is used in products ranging from paints and electronics to solar panels and fireworks.

Due to its explosive qualities, aluminium powder is also a key ingredient in solid-fuel propellants used to launch rockets and missiles. When mixed with material containing oxygen, a vast amount of energy is released.

In 2010, the British government added IAC to a list of Iranian entities it believed could use goods purchased for military purposes or for weapons of mass destruction. The list was intended to alert traders hoping to sell to those entities that they may need to apply for an export license. The list was withdrawn in 2017 following the lifting of a wide range of U.N. and European Union sanctions on Iran.

Asked by Reuters about Iran’s production of aluminium powder for military use, the British government said in a statement: “We have significant and longstanding concerns about Iran’s ballistic missile programme, which is destabilising for the region and poses a threat to regional security.” The statement added that development by Iran of nuclear-capable ballistic missiles and related technologies “is inconsistent” with U.N. Security Council resolution 2231, which has been in place since 2015 and calls for Iran to refrain from activity related to ballistic missiles designed to deliver nuclear weapons.


INTERCEPTED SHIPMENT

The United Nations has long targeted Iran’s missile activities as part of efforts to curb the country’s suspected nuclear programme. In June 2010, the U.N. Security Council adopted resolution 1929. That measure restricted Tehran’s production of ballistic missiles capable of delivering nuclear weapons and prohibited other states supplying Iran with related technology or technical assistance.

In September 2010, Singaporean authorities intercepted a shipment of 302 drums of aluminium powder en route to Iran and originating from China, according to a U.N. panel monitoring compliance with the resolution. A ballistic missiles expert told the panel that the high aluminium content of the powder was “an indication that the most likely end-use is solid propellant for missiles,” the panel said in a 2011 report.

By 2011, the Jajarm facility was being developed, according to Amir Moghadam and two of the documents he shared with Reuters.

One document is an October 2011 letter to Major General Hassan Tehrani Moghadam, then head of the Revolutionary Guards missile programme, from Majid Ghasemi Feizabadi, IAC’s managing director at the time. Ghasemi wrote that following the major general’s orders, they had found a location for the project close to an "abandoned airport" near the city of Jajarm. Ghasemi also asked for $18 million of funding from the country’s sovereign wealth fund to build the plant.

Reuters was unable to establish if the fund, called the National Development Fund of Iran, contributed. It could not be reached for comment via phone and did not respond to a request sent via the Iranian embassy in London.

Some of the documents reviewed by Reuters relate to interventions made to judicial authorities by Revolutionary Guards members and Iranian officials on behalf of Ghasemi explaining the secret project and his role in it. He was detained in Iran in 2015 on corruption allegations in relation to financial transactions tied to IAC, according to the documents. Ghasemi was later released without charge, Amir Moghadam said.

Ghasemi did not respond to requests for comment. Hassan Tehrani Moghadam, the deceased former head of the Revolutionary Guards missile programme, is not related to Amir Moghadam. The late general’s brother, Revolutionary Guards commander Mohammad Tehrani Moghadam, could not be reached for comment.


SOURCING EQUIPMENT

IAC also held talks with a Chinese company about obtaining equipment, according to the letters Reuters reviewed. The company identified in the documents is state-backed China Nonferrous Metal Industry's Foreign Engineering and Construction Co, Ltd <000758.SZ>, also known as NFC.

In the October 2011 letter to the head of the Revolutionary Guards missile programme, IAC’s Ghasemi wrote: "following your instructions, we have reached agreement with Mr. Li Xiaofeng … to provide part of the required machinery and equipment via the Chinese NFC firm” from a German company and a Japanese company. The letter’s subject line was: “atomization aluminum powder.”

Li Xiaofeng was NFC’s assistant president and chief law officer, according to a letter Li sent to Ghasemi two months later.

It is not clear from the documents where IAC eventually purchased the equipment it used. Reuters was unable to identify the German and Japanese companies referred to in the letter. Li could not be reached for comment.

China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs, responding to questions about NFC and IAC, said it does "not have a grasp of the situation you are describing." It said China has strictly complied "with the international non-proliferation obligations including decisions made by the U.N. Security Council."

NFC told Reuters it “has neither exported nor assisted anyone to get any technology, equipment or services related to the production of aluminium powder for any purposes.” The company said its business was limited to “areas of civilian use.” It said it observes laws and regulations in China and host countries and complies with the relevant resolutions of the U.N. Security Council.

NFC’s website identifies Iran as one of its markets and lists a 2005 news release identifying the Jajarm alumina plant as a “technical modification project undertaken by NFC.” The Chinese company didn’t respond to questions about whether it offered IAC equipment, technology and services in relation to aluminium powder production.


“SURVIVE THE SANCTIONS”

Moghadam, the former official now in France, told Reuters he visited the Jajarm facility twice in 2015 and attended several meetings in Tehran between government officials and IAC managers. The managers were “asking for access to foreign currencies, saying their military project needed government support to survive the sanctions,” he said. The office of the vice president for executive affairs didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Following the Iran nuclear deal with world powers in 2015, the U.N. Security Council’s previous provisions on ballistic missile activity were lifted and a new resolution took effect. Resolution 2231 “called upon” Tehran to refrain from activity related to ballistic missiles designed with the capability of delivering nuclear weapons.

Iran and some of its allies argue the language does not make compliance obligatory.

The U.N. spokesman said the Security Council has not established whether the production of aluminium powder falls under the resolution because the material can also be used in propellants of missiles or rockets that aren’t designed to deliver nuclear weapons. He added that the U.N. Secretariat wasn’t in a position to ascertain if production of the powder for military use would have been covered by the earlier resolution 1929.


(Reporting by Bozorgmehr Sharafedin and Pratima Desai in London; Additional reporting by Min Zhang and Tom Daly in Beijing, Arshad Mohammed in Washington, Yuki Nitta in Tokyo, and Michelle Nichols in New York.; Editing by Cassell Bryan-Low and Veronica Brown)